Battle over Malibu


Stage Company

By David Wallace/Special to The Malibu Times

Last week, eight members of the 12-member board of directors of the Malibu Stage Company (MSC) resigned; it was, apparently, the fifth time such mass defection has taken place in the 10-year history of the organization.

What’s going on? The problem, according to the departed board members (most of whom desired anonymity), is, and has been from the beginning, frustration over working with the company’s artistic director, Charles Marowitz. He has, they say, been consistently “abusive,” and “insulting,” not only to his board, but also to friends, patrons and suppliers of the theater, housed since 1995 in the former Shepherd-by-the-Sea Lutheran Church off Pacific Coast Highway in Point Dume. In fact, two former board members said they were so intimidated by Marowitz’s response to criticism that they declined to talk on the record, citing fear of physical retribution.

Marowitz, however, has his supporters. Many who have worked with him over the years consider him (to quote a departed board member) “very funny [and] very very smart,” as well as exceedingly savvy in theatrical matters.

The new board chairperson, Geoffrey Ortiz, vice president of Investments at Paine Webber in Beverly Hills said: “In all meetings we’ve had with Charles he’s been diligent and done everything we’ve asked for. We look forward to working with him in the coming seasons.”

Jackie Bridgeman, the board’s president emeritus (who matched a City Council $25,000 grant to MSC a year ago, part of $45,000 she’s given the theater over the years), said: “Charles is very talented but very volatile and very unrealistic. People not close to the theater world have trouble understanding that. He has never received a salary, but occasionally, when there is some extra money, we’ll give it to him. He got $2,000 for directing “Stage Fright” (a recent production, written by Marowitz, and savaged by the Los Angeles Times), which I think is fair. I think he is also very unsophisticated in business dealings and that is the root of the problem.”

One problem is, apparently, some bills have been paid slowly. In one case, following the use of the theater by the Youth Academy of Dramatic Arts (YADA) for a March 1999 production of “West Side Story,” Marowitz refused to pay, as they claim he previously agreed, half the cost ($76.48) of a memory card for the theater’s light board. He later accused YADA of being “small-minded” and “thoroughly non-professional,” threatening to sue unless they returned the card. (The check was “in the mail,” he claimed, April 12; a representative of YADA says the bill has never been paid.)

As great a problem, at least in the minds of some, is the fact that there have been so few productions during the decade, even allowing for the availability of only temporary stages until the church’s renovation as a theater space was completed a year ago. Despite high profile support for the MSC trumpeted on the theater’s stationary (Ed Asner did a benefit last April), the productions have been, for the most part, mostly staged readings by celebrities. Contrary to what most theaters desire, the nonprofit, equity waiver venue also sits dark most of the time. Marowitz, some charge, is apparently unwilling to rent it to any outsider, except at what they claim is an unrealistic fee of $1,500 per week (the theater pays rent of $1,500 a month for the church to its present owner, James Cowan).

Charles Marowitz, 66, was appointed artistic director by the Malibu Stage Company in 1989, “after 9 years of making art and trouble in L.A.,” according to a feature in the Los Angeles Times at the time. Born in New York, he made his reputation in London from the late 1950s until the early 1980s, co-directing with Peter Brook the Royal Shakespeare Experimental Group and, later, founding the city’s top experimental venue, the Open Space Theater, of which he was the artistic director for 12 years. In 1981 he moved to Los Angeles and worked as an often-admired director with the Los Angeles Theater Center, and as last theater critic of the defunct Herald-Examiner. He has been a vociferous critic of Los Angeles City’s theater establishment, particularly Gordon Davidson of the Mark Taper Forum. Over the years he has written numerous books and plays; “Sherlock’s Last Case,” went from L.A. to Broadway in 1987, but was panned by the Time’s critic, Frank Rich (although other publications liked it). His directorial outings have been both admired as well as highly controversial

Reached in Portland, Ore., where he is directing a play, Marowitz said of the recent board defections: “Over a period of 10 years there has been a series of individual members who’ve come and go like it is with most boards, but it’s inaccurate to say there have been four or five different boards.”

In an email he sent to The Malibu Times, as we went to press, (one of a blizzard of position statements e-mailed and faxed from all parties), Marowitz said: “The recent board of Malibu Stage, led by a cabal of five disruptive members, has, over the past eighteen months, attempted a hostile takeover of a theater, which Jackie Bridgeman, Jane Windsor and I created and which has been providing top-flight, professional programs in the city since its inception 11 years ago. I and other members of the board have vigorously opposed the cabal’s attempt to overturn the theater’s artistic mission, which is devoted to the presentation of classical works, new plays, worthwhile revivals and an outreach program which involves children’s theater, liaisons with senior citizen groups and local associations in the City of Malibu. The ‘cabal’ wished to turn a serious-minded, professional organization into a commercialized outlet which would jettison all artistic criteria.”

Marowitz firmly believes this is contrary to the publicly stated mission of the MSC, which he sees as the basis of the venue’s support.

“The moneys raised by the theater over a period of four years, which enabled its conversion into a state-of-the-art 99-seat playhouse, were donated by hundreds of Malibu residents who subscribed to the theater’s publicly disseminated Artistic Mission Statement, and to contravene those policies would have meant violating the promises under which that money was donated,” he said.

(The total raised over the decade is some $250,000, according to Bridgeman).

“Due to strenuous efforts by the founders and legal measures invoked to combat breaches-of-contract and flagrant violations of the company’s by-laws,” he added, “their attempt has finally been frustrated and the theater can now fulfill the objectives for which it was originally created.

“Malibu Stage now has a new, unified board and can now make a new start. It will bend every effort to become the first-class professional theater for the Malibu community that it promised to be when it was first created.”

Former board member (and attorney) David Weintraub disagrees: “Everything was done 100 percent in accordance with the bylaws. Everything that the eight individuals who left the board did was intended to make the highest and best use of the facility for the community.”

“I also disagree with the statement of Charles Marowitz,” added Richard Carrigan, ex- MSC board chairman and among those who recently quit. “None of those who resigned from the board of MSC had any intention of a hostile takeover of the theater nor did they wish to degrade any production standards. That is also true of the individuals who resigned from the four or five previous boards.”

Stuart Gross, another resigning board member responding to Marowitz’s e-mail, said: “Mr. Marowitz’s statement about the Malibu Stage Board is at least hyperbolic and mostly untrue.”

“Mr. Marowitz seems to believe that the funding of a theater in Malibu is a personal mandate for his vision,” said Gross. “The majority of the board does not agree with his vision and I would suggest the poor attendance at most productions speaks of the community’s lack of same. The community outreach programs, which Mr. Marowitz alludes to, are not in effect. An artistic mission statement is not The Ten Commandments and, like the Constitution of the United States, is subject to change in the interests of the community it serves.

“Finally, Mr. Marowitz’s abuse of some of the members of the board is absolutely unacceptable behavior,” continued Gross. “If he was not thinking of me in particular when he refers to the cabal of five disruptive members, I hereby volunteer to be the sixth.”

Former board member Alanna Tarkington sent us her reaction to the Marowitz e-mail.

“Malibu deserves a professional theater, where the physical premises are also available for community activities,” she said. “This board of directors has worked hard to bring Malibu a community-based theater despite name calling and threats of lawsuits by its artistic director, Marowitz.

“I found myself unable to ask anymore family and friends for any additional moneys to support the “Charles Marowitz Theatre” — especially since the request by the City Council for a financial accounting of the theater, before this board’s term, has not yet been reconciled.

“God Bless any new board of directors for trying!” continued Tarkington. “For it shouldn’t really take 11 years and five boards to birth a new theater. Something, obviously, is dreadfully wrong!”

A decade ago, Marowitz wrote a book about the swinging 1960s in the British theater world; it was named “Burnt Bridges.” One wonders if the title is prophetic. According to one ex-board member, last December, rather than solving the problem by firing Marowitz, the board decided to give him another chance. Now, of course, that board is essentially gone, and there is a new one (including actor Stacey Keach, producer Deke Hayward and his playwright wife, Sandra), so what the future holds for the MSC is unknown.

Carrigan, however, is optimistic.

“MSC will ultimately succeed because it is important to the community,” he said. “Malibu has no cultural center. We need one.”